“Forgive and forget.”
Right. If only.
It’s not that we necessarily want to remember how we’ve been hurt in the past. But as I’ve suggested in previous posts, we just do. Remembering the things that have threatened or harmed us helps us avoid further pain.
You wouldn’t want to forget how it feels to touch a hot stove, right?
But of course, a relationship with another human being is a lot more complicated than a relationship with a stove. When a stove burns you, you don’t spend time planning your revenge.
But when a person burns you…well, you get the picture.
When Paul says that love doesn’t keep a reckoning of wrongs (1 Cor 13:5), I don’t think he means that we should be able to erase painful memories by an act of will. He’s not saying, “What? You still remember how she said something mean to you fifteen years ago? And it still hurts? Shame on you!”
I believe he’s referring to our tendency to wallow in resentful thoughts, to nurse our grievances, to ruminate on them. We go over and over the injury in our minds; we repeat the same silent thoughts of revenge or self-pity. When we tell the story of what happened, we portray the other person in one-dimensional terms as the villain of the piece. And in all these things, we reinforce our perception of that person as something less than a real and complex human being.
Love and forgiveness don’t mean “forgetting” in the usual sense, but refusing to rehearse our resentment. With all the shenanigans that had happened in the Corinthian church, one can easily imagine how the cancer of resentment may have spread through the congregation. Stop, Paul was telling them. Don’t keep thinking about how others have offended you. If you do, you’ll never be one body in Christ. You’ll never learn the way of love.
Forgiveness can be a controversial subject. Jesus commands us to forgive in no uncertain terms (e.g., Matt 6:14-15; 18:35). But some take that to mean turning a blind eye to injustice. Abusers have also used such passages to bully others into continuing to submit to their abuse (while conveniently ignoring their own responsibility to be humble, loving, and so on).
But forgiveness is not a law; it’s an expression of grace. Note that in both of the passages cited from the gospel of Matthew above, the command to forgive is predicated on the prior forgiveness of God — a forgiveness that in Matthew 18 is portrayed in the most radically merciful and compassionate of terms. The king in the parable is incensed that the servant who was forgiven such an enormous debt doesn’t “get it” — he doesn’t seem to understand how receiving such a gift of grace should flow back outward to others.
Instead of instituting a law of forgiveness, then, we need to do whatever we can to be people who know way down deep in our spiritual bones what it means to be loved by our heavenly Father, to be forgiven a debt that we can scarcely imagine. Awash in that truth, we can look differently at our sisters and brothers: God loves them too. Jesus died for them too. That’s what we share in common. That’s what makes us family.
Try ruminating on that instead of your resentment.